Slavery to Custom

Custom is a tyrant. I am well aware of the fact that this saying is not original to me. But the truth of it is becoming clearer and clearer to me with each passing year.

Most of us are well aware of the tyranny of the passions. Passions are very sensible, and so of the four kinds of slavery from which liberal education frees us, (slavery to passion, fashion, custom and error – as we have spoken of extensively elsewhere) it is not strange that we would know about the slavery to the passions first. After all the first natural road in our knowledge is the “road of the senses into reason” as the wise Dr. Berquist puts it. Then of course comes the slavery to fashion, which again is perhaps the second most sensible of the four.

Slavery to custom, on the other hand,  is quite insensible precisely because it is a slavery to something which is….well… customary.

Things which we do by custom seem second nature to us. They largely go unnoticed. We do not notice the things that we do by nature. How many of us are even aware of our own breathing. When we do notice it, it is probably because there is a problem. So also the things that we do by custom

It is very important to become aware of what we ourselves think and why we think what we think.

We  owe our understanding of what knowledge is to the Greek philosophers, and of course especially to the Greek philosopher who said (in the second chapter of his Posterior Analytics)

We suppose ourselves to possess unqualified scientific knowledge of a thing, as opposed to knowing it in the accidental way in which the sophist knows, when we think that we know the cause on which the fact depends…

Those who wish to know truth have to be concerned with knowing the reasons for things. in other words, if we say something is true but we do not know why we say that it is true, then we cannot really say that we know.

For example among the things that we might hold:

  1. we might hold certain things because they are self evident.
  2. We might hold other things because we have reasoned them out from self evident things.
  3. Finally we might hold some things simply by custom.

For example “the whole is greater than the part” is a clear example of a truth that we all hold because it is self evident to anyone who has eaten lunch. On the other hand that the common good is a greater good than the private good is not self evident but might be deduced from this the fact that the whole is greater than the part.

What are some things that we think by custom? Let me suggest that there are a great many things that we hold for no other reason than that the tyrant custom compels us. to show how widespread custom’s influence is- how about :

  • Our ideas about politics “Democracy is the highest form of government”
  • Our idea about Mathematics “One is a number.” or “a line is made up of points”
  • even something as trivial as the fact that many of us insist on calling the name for the common prayer before each meal “Grace.”

Whether these ideas are true or false is not the point. The point here is that the one who wishes to become wise must examine why it is that he holds these ideas. I am suggesting that such ideas as these – and a great many more- are held for no other reason than the force and compulsion of custom.

Self examination is difficult. But which ideas we hold through reason and which through custom will never be known to us unless we examine ourselves. If we refuse to particpate in the examined life, then we must perforce remain slaves of custom, for a slave to custom is one who does or thinks something for no other reason than that it his custom to do or think the thing.

Being educated, however, demands that we who hold various ideas and behave in certain ways must also know the reasons why we hold those ideas and behave in those ways. If we do not examine our intellectual lives in an attempt to sort these things out – we will remain, in large part, slaves of custom.

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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